A Political Science Major’s Understanding of Science - Webpaper 4
7 May 2011
A Political Science Major’s Understanding of Science
When I hear the word “science,” I think of the natural sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics. Why do I only think of these three natural sciences? Perhaps it is because in high school, we were required to take biology, chemistry, and physics as to fulfill the science requirement. Or perhaps it is because I have been exposed to the use of the term “science” as only referring to these three fields. Or maybe it is because I study political science, a branch of the social sciences, but do not consider myself a “science-person,” and I do not want to label myself as a “scientist.” That brings me to the following question: “what do I think science means?”
At Bryn Mawr, we have three divisional requirements. The Division II requirement is the Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The reason students must take a course in the natural science, including one with a lab, as stated in the Bryn Mar catalogue, is that “knowledge of the physical world is a fundamental part of human experience [because] understanding the workings of nature is essential to our lives.” In the rest of the description, the catalogue mentions phrases like “mathematics, the language of science,” “scientific facts,” “scientific method,” “scientific inquiry,” and “logical reasoning.” These phrases seem to reinforce my idea of what I have been exposed too in terms of the meaning of science: fact-based, logical, definite, and having little room for interpretation. I have always associated these phrases with science in general because they are what I learned and applied in my science courses in high school.
Being required to take a natural science course here at Bryn Mawr reminds me of my science requirement in high school, which may explain my aversion to the field, and what I think science means. I did not always do particularly well in my science courses in school. The class I did the best in was my tenth grade, honors chemistry class. I think the reason for my success was that we had a great teacher and a great class. We had good “chemistry.” The teaching-style and structure was consistent, and most of the people in the class seemed to be on equal footing. I did pretty well in eleventh grade, honors physics. I believe I could have done better had it not been for the fact that, by the second and third trimesters, we had three teachers. They each had their own teaching styles and grading standards, and they did not know the students as well in the beginning. The class I did not do well in, and I did not like, was ninth grade biology. One reason why I found it difficult was that it was freshman year, and I was still trying to settle into the high school setting. I also had trouble understanding the material and doing the labs. We always had to take notes directly of the board. I felt I was purely being lectured to. Luckily, all we had to do to fulfill the science requirement was take these classes, and not get an F.
Here at Bryn Mawr, the fact that we have to get at least a C to get credit scared me when it came to natural science, and the labs that go with it. I was somewhat relieved when I saw that I could take Intro to Psychology for the lab. But I got nervous again when I still had to take a natural science course. I was so happy when I saw that “Stories of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories” was cross-listed as Biology and English. Other than the fact that I really like English, knowing that I would be surrounded by students other than Biology majors, who always seem to come in knowing they want to do research or go to medical school upon graduation, made me feel less intimidated. I felt that I would be able to bring my political science background to the table and make people look at the topic in a different way. I also felt that this ability did not constrain me to the more definitive nature of biology, and science in general. I was also excited because I knew we, students, would be teaching and learning from each other, and that I might actually remember something when I left the class.
Seeing that other students we interested in learning more about the political science interpretations and opinions about a topics made me want to learn more about the biological point of view, which we, ironically, did not go into as much as I thought we would in a course with “Evolution” in the title. When asked how many of us had studied evolution, I was surprised to see how many biology majors did not raise their hands. I assumed all of them would had to spent some time learning about it as part of their major. I am not saying they had to take a whole course, but maybe in an introductory class. It seems like a major concept/theory in the field of biology. When I saw that my assumption was wrong, I began to wonder what the structure of the major was. What is the goal of the major? What is the structure of the major (courses)? What is the purpose of the required courses? Is there any common literature that cuts across the different fields within biology? Are biology and political science, natural science and social science, really that different after all?
According to the Political Science department website, “the major in political science aims at developing the reading, writing and thinking skills needed for a critical understanding of the political world.” There are no required courses. The only requirements are two introductory courses, three courses in the major’s two fields of study (one at the 300-level in each field). The subfields are chosen by the major and based on his or her interest. There are no set fields, but there are some popular ones. My two fields are international politics and comparative politics. Comparative politics involves looking at two or more countries and comparing them. It seeks to explain differences and similarities between them. International politics (also known as international relations) is the study of the relations among countries. It seeks to examine and create foreign policy of an individual state.
All courses, at any level, always begin by talking about political theories. This is important because these theories cut across all fields of political science. They are necessary for understanding politics, economics, law, etc. today. This is why I often read many of the same pieces of work in my different classes. And even if I do not read the same texts, when I see an author’s name, I usually recognize it and can easily refer to their work and make connections.
When I think about the natural sciences, I think the theories in that field are used to just explain a result and predict future results. The theories I remember in my classes were almost all mathematical equations. This is different from political science in which theories are used more for analysis and interpretation. There are so many theories that can explain different events, outcomes, policies, political structures, etc, and there is never a right or wrong explanation or theory.
The major theory in my political science studies is international relations theory. International relations theory is actually is an umbrella of different theories developed by different schools of thought. These different ways of thinking often conflict with each other, so it is important to learn all of them. Sometimes this can be hard, in terms of you are taught. I have had professors who, clearly, belong to certain schools of thought. If you are not a political science major, you might recognize that a professor has a particular point of view, and this may compel you to think in a certain way, even if you do not agree with him or her. But, as a political science major, even in my introductory courses, I recognized that the professor had a certain way of thinking and kept an open mind. I do consider myself more of a neorealist, though I do not agree with all of the schools beliefs. But when I write an essay and make an argument, I try to take a neutral stance, unless I am asked my opinion. That is what I like about political science. I feel that I am able to express my own opinions and offer my own thoughts. The natural sciences seem more objective, and offer less room for providing explanations and opinions.
As I said before, I know many of my assumptions are wrong, and they were formed by my past experiences. After collaborating with a biology major on another project and now on this project, I have learned a great deal about their field of study and learned that there are commonalities between political science and political science. I also learned that there are similarities between the social sciences and natural sciences. We had similar assumptions about each others field of study and learned more about our own areas of study. I really enjoyed this collaboration. I felt that it was a good and experience and want to explore the topic more.